Sunday, 27 August 2017

Brain tumour? Stroke? Or stress??

As we drove home from Wales one Saturday a few weeks ago, a stiffness crept up my neck and settled into a sick ache at the back of my head, which held me in its grip for days.

Courtesy of Shutterstock

When I got up on Monday morning, great swirls of black floated across my field of vision, like globules of ink dropped into water. They were totally unlike the vague ‘floaters’ we all see and ignore. They moved slowly from left to right, as thick, black and undeniable as hieroglyphics spelling out a message of alarm.

When professionals asked later whether they were in one or both eyes, I could only answer, ‘It looked as though they were actually there.’

A few moments later, as I stared into the mirror, they faded to nothing. They appeared again later in the morning, much fainter this time.

I do not worry about my health or imagine that every symptom is something deadly. I was worried about this.

The receptionist at our surgery asked what the problem was.

‘An alarming visual disturbance,’ I said.

I have never had a migraine and don’t suffer from headaches, so for me, the word ‘alarming’ was key. She didn’t seem to hear it. She booked me in to see a nurse practitioner.

By the time I reached the surgery, I had reassured myself that this was probably a virus, or a late onset migraine. The nurse practitioner did not agree. She wanted to send me for an MRI scan and I needed to get a full sight test first. The occipital headache and the visual disturbance could be signs of ‘something neurological’ causing pressure at the back of my head.

‘But I’m going on holiday on Thursday. Am I OK to fly?’ I asked.

She looked uncertain, but then urged me to book a sight test for my return. ‘Relax and enjoy your holiday,’ she said.

This seemed a vain hope when she recommended going straight to the nearest hospital if my symptoms returned.

Later my mind was swamped with questions I hadn’t asked and advice I hadn’t taken in. I rang and asked to speak to a doctor.

I went to a friend’s house but couldn’t focus on anything. At last the doctor rang. After taking all the details, he said it sounded like an ‘anomalous neurological event’. I rather liked the word, ‘anomalous’, which I interpreted as ‘random, benign, irrelevant and never-to-return.’ He advised getting a full sight test that day, to rule out a serious eye condition or anything causing pressure behind my eyes.

As I say, I don’t jump to dire conclusions when it comes to my health, but I asked him to spell out what we were hoping to rule out. I had correctly guessed ‘brain tumour’, though I hadn’t suspected ‘minor stroke’ because my blood pressure is the envy of anyone who tests it. There was no space in my head to worry about the awful eye conditions that were also candidates.

Specsavers Tunbridge Wells were reassuring, kind and thorough. They fitted me in that afternoon, despite being swamped, and over an anxious three hours, every test was done. There was nothing wrong with my eyes.

We flew of the Montenegro and the recurrences of floating swirls faded into the usual kind that I could happily ignore. The sick headache was eased away by sunshine, sea swims, sightseeing and relaxation.

Relaxation, Montenegro style

Stressed? Me?

The doctor’s latest pronouncement is that this was most likely an anomalous neurological event caused by stress. I am, of course, massively grateful to be pronounced healthy. But like everyone accused of suffering from stress, I was initially reluctant to accept this. I immediately thought of many people who have much more right to be stressed than me.

Jon and I pondered the possible causes.

  • The partial collapse of my parents’ house.
  • My sister’s husband going through a major operation.
  • All my freelance work arriving at once, just as I was going on holiday, and festering, undone, at the back of my head.
  • The decision to self-publish Unspeakable Things, and the first steps towards making it happen.

I have to admit, the final cause is the most likely. The ‘To Do’ list for the self-publisher is long and troubling – with items such as, ‘Become a social media sensation’ to contend with.

Two Titans are battling it out in my head: the lifelong drive to be a published writer and the temptation to give up as usual and have a quiet life in obscurity. The ambition and the self-saboteur are both fierce and terrifying.

So the battle is on. The Titans are roaring. It’s no wonder I’ve been having headaches. But you never get the success you dream of if you don’t risk the failure you fear. I won’t let black swirly things stand in my way.

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